My Unexpected South & The Land of Cotton
My Unexpected South
One afternoon in the 1990s, when I lived in New York, a college student approached me in Greenwich Village and said she was doing a survey. If you could be anyone from history for a day, she asked, who would that be? “My grandfather,” I answered.
She was surprised by my response—not Leonardo, Lincoln?—and I guess I was, too. My grandfather, Morris Hoffman, died in 1956, when I was three years old, and growing up I had little interest in the narrative of his life. While I honored his memory and valued my dad’s reminiscences about him and my grandmother—Eastern European Jews who settled in Alabama—I consigned them to the sepia tones of the past.
A man with a funny accent who smoked cigars, Morris was born in Romania in 1879, stowed away on a freighter to Ellis Island in 1901, and proposed to Mary in Brooklyn, where they began their family. In 1908 Morris set out find a smaller, warmer town with economic opportunities. He had only so much money allotted for travel, the story goes, counted it out at a train station, and was given a ticket to Mobile, Alabama. Mary and their first-born soon joined him. A year later, 1909, my dad, Charles, was born over the store a half-dozen blocks from Mobile’s train station and port.
My dad described a world in which neighbors were Lebanese, Greek, German, Egyptian, and Italian. A Cuban cigar maker was their tenant. Given my grandparents’ use of Yiddish and Romanian at home as well as newfound English, a mix of languages coursed through the rooms. The street out their window had the flavor of the Mediterranean in the Heart of Dixie.
The juxtapositions were stark, and colorful. Within a half-dozen blocks were several houses of worship—the Greek Orthodox church, the Catholic cathedral, a temple for Reform Jews, some of whom had been in town for decades already, and a synagogue for Orthodox Jewish newcomers like my grandparents. The city’s French origins were notable in Bienville Square, named for the town’s founder, and the Mardi Gras parades that rolled by the family store. Close to the docks, where banana boats came to port from Central America, stood a bronze statue of Adm. Raphael Semmes, commander of the CSS Alabama, looking out over it all.
While the South, at times, has been unwelcoming to foreigners—are hard-line stances on immigration in my home state and others rooted in that history?—there’s a counter impulse of neighborliness, too. When my friends from elsewhere ask how my grandparents survived what was surely a harsh reception in early 1900s Alabama, I explain that, to them, it brimmed with promise.
They could not join high society, their accents and complexions marked them to some folks as suspicious, and they were outside the realm of what Flannery O’Connor called “the Christ-haunted South”—as my friend Eli Evans wrote of his Jewish family in Durham, “the lonely days were Sundays”—but no matter. Next to having their shtetls ransacked by pogroms, being conscripted into the Romanian military, or having their livelihoods shut down by government edict, what were Klansmen in the night or fire-and-brimstone preachers declaiming they were going to hell? Well … shrug … things could be worse! I have images in my mind of Morris smoking his cigar in his rocking chair on a balmy Gulf Coast evening, floating on his back in Mobile Bay, and making a deal with a farmer to exchange watermelons for furniture. His children, like those of their neighbors, went to college and prospered, became lawyers like my father, doctors and business leaders, rode Mardi Gras floats and cheered the Crimson Tide.
And their grandchildren?
I did not appreciate my South until I moved to New York in 1975 after college in New Orleans and began to answer the question posed, no matter where you’re from, by new friends and colleagues: “Where you from? What’s it like?”
In answering I began to realize that Alabama was seen as exotic, good and bad, the South was steeped in mythology, good and bad, and that being a Jew from the South—indeed, any minority—was unexpected to those from urban areas where ethnic groups had traditionally formed their own, vast neighborhoods, transplanting entire cultures from Poland or India or Colombia.
From 1992 to 1994 I worked in the New York governor’s Manhattan office, housed at World Trade Center Two, and on lunch breaks I’d get a sandwich, stroll toward Battery Park, and find a bench by the Hudson River. As I looked out at tour boats plying the harbor to Ellis Island, I thought of the legions of newcomers, like my grandparents on both sides—forebears on my mother’s side were from Germany and Russia—who had gazed up in tears at Lady Liberty.
That some of them had headed South was part of the American story I realized I was heir to.
While the international South was not readily discernible to passers-through, it was evident to many who lived there that not every last citizen was of Northern European or African descent. Our differing backgrounds were thrown into relief—we were the lonesome embodiments of Greek, Chinese, or Jewish culture—but those differences made a unique gumbo of our Southerness, too. New arrivals in recent years from Southeast Asia and Latin America create their own fusions of culture, like the Thai teenager elected queen of the Blessing of the Fleet in Bayou la Batre, Alabama. My spiritual mentor in childhood, Rabbi P. Irving Bloom of Mobile’s Congregation Sha’arai Shomayim, or Springhill Avenue Temple, expressed it in this context— growing up in Vidalia, he was surrounded by rural Georgia, but inside his home was extraterritorial Lithuania.
On trips to Alabama and other points to see family I became more attuned to this American narrative, the fact that my home region was coursed through with cultures from all over the world. In so many mercantile centers of the past—from Charleston to Birmingham to New Orleans—family businesses on downtown blocks had given way to chain stores in air-conditioned malls. But the cultures they sustained existed in their influences on the next generation, and the next. And some establishments endure, like my grandfather’s store, now run by my cousin. Inside, Morris’s rocker sits next to his crank-handle adding machine kept just for fun. Sometimes I wander by just to sit and be enveloped by his world.
An expression I heard my dad use all his life, “chicken dreaming corn,” was one I had no source for, even though I had asked New York friends about it over the years. I figured it was a quirky family saying until, after my family and I had moved back South, I was interviewed on Walter Edgar’s Journal on South Carolina Public Radio. After mentioning a novel in progress inspired by my grandparents, I got a letter from a listener who said she had grown up with a similar expression in her Romanian Jewish home in the Palmetto state. I fashioned an author’s note for the book:
“ ‘Chicken dreaming corn’ is an expression my Romanian Jewish grandmother used to refer to the yearnings of ordinary folks for something special or extraordinary. I recently learned that the saying in Romanian, pasărea mălai visează, means, ‘the bird dreams of corn,’ implying lofty expectations or unreachable goals, and that mălai can mean maize, corn flour, or a type of brittle corn bread. Mălai crumbs, more desirable to many birds than corn, might be hard to attain. I figure my grandmother gave an Alabama twist to the expression, especially since she and my grandfather opened their first place of business next door to Mobile Poultry Farm, ‘Dealers in Eggs and all kind of Live & Home-Dressed Poultry.’ This is one of the kernels of fact in a work of the imagination.”
The Land of Cotton
Mobile, Alabama, 1916
Down the stairs from the bedrooms to the floor of his store, past the blouses and pants under dust covers waiting for day to begin, Morris Kleinman made his way to the front door thanking God, blessed be His name, for a regular night’s sleep, his devoted Miriam, four healthy children, and strength enough, after a nagging cold, to be the first one up on Upper Dauphin Street wielding his broom against the walk in preparation for the Confederate Veteran’s parade.
Above him the swallows looped their crazy script against the chalky Mobile sky. They circled above the Lebanese clothing store and Syrian pressing shop, turned and soared above the Greek bakery where Matranga was baking his New York twist bread that would sell, in today’s busy crowd, for a nickel a loaf. As the Holy Cathedral bell gonged six times Father O’Connor scraped his way on one good leg toward the church steps, calling out to Morris, “May peace be with you,” to which Morris called back, thinking of the silent, glaring Orthodox priest of his Romanian village, “Good morning, Monseignur, and shalom to you.”
Horse hair, wood shavings, tobacco, goat droppings, melon rind, ashes, a lone shoelace — his broom whisked away last night’s debris onto the wood-brick street. He reached down into the gutter and retrieved the shoelace, slipping it into his pocket for Miriam’s scrap box; yesterday she’d kissed him when he salvaged an ivory button.
As he wheeled out the clothes racks he looked down the street, past the red-brick and stained glass Cathedral, past the tattered Star Theater-marquee and the humble mercantile storefronts of Hebeeb and Zoghby and Kalifeh, toward Lower Dauphin where the likes of prosperous Greenbaum and Leinkauf were nowhere yet to be seen. Oh, he shook his head, the German Jewish merchants still blithely asleep in their canopied beds.
The ritual morning prayers humming at his lips, he turned to go back in, eyeing a crate to be opened. Facing east, tallit over his shoulders, he laced the prayer straps through his fingers and intoned the Hebrew, rocking gently, trying not to think about the work pants he’d ordered from Schwartz in Memphis or the dresses from Besser in New Orleans, landsmen with their own ties to the Carpathian vistas of Romania. The sun fanned out like palmetto leaves across the storefronts where cedar bread boxes awaited Smith’s Bakery deliveries and, in the doorway of the Norwegian Seamen’s Hall, men curled hoping for day jobs cleaning stables or lugging bananas from the docks. As Father O’Connor said his first “amen” in the incensed recesses of Holy Cathedral, Morris said his last “o main” standing behind the cash register of his store. He added a prayer for safe-keeping of Papa, dwelling still with sister Golda, so far away. “You will join us here in Alabama,” he vowed. “Soon.”
He folded away his prayer shawl, picked up a crowbar and faced the shoulder-high crate: Besser Fashions, New Orleans. Thinking of his sons curled in a lazy cocoon, he went back upstairs.
In the front room, his own, Miriam lay curled in their bed before the French doors half-opened to the balcony. The collar of her embroidered gown came high on the neck, her dark hair coiled in a bun. Without turning she raised her hand to signal she was awake: the eyes and ears of the house even as she dozed in reverie, he knew, of the village lanes and kitchen tables of her Romanian home.
He passed his daughter’s room. Lillian had kicked off the covers, her twelve-year-old legs sprawled to the far corners of the mattress, her gown twisted up to beyond her knees. The color was robust in her face, blessed be His Name, but after her rheumatic fever—three years ago, this day of the Confederates—who could ever be sure? He stole in and draped the sheet back over her.
He turned into the front room where baby Hannah snored in her bed. Just the other side of a muslin curtain dividing the room, ten-year-old Abraham and eight-year-old Herman lay elbow to shoulder, mouths open like fish. He leaned over and stroked the back of his hand over Abe’s cheek; his son groaned. He wiggled his fingertip on the peace fuzz over the boy’s upper lip; Abe brushed away the finger.
“Gutte morgen, mein boychik,” Morris whispered.
“Mornin,’ ” Abe moaned back.
“Langer loksh,” he exhorted, using the nickname, “long legs,” for his lanky son.
“No school today, Daddy.”
“Sun’s not even up.”
“This son is the first who will make good at Barton?”
“Who will make a good marriage to a nice shayna madele?”
He nodded in the pillow.
“Who will help his Papa in the store?”
He was answered with a rising snore.
Morris laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder and belted, “Avraham!”
The boy bolted upright, but Herman was already on his feet, slipping on his pants, dancing from side to side and bunching his fists like a boxer.
Miriam called out, “You will wake Hannah!”
“Abe will hush her,” Morris answered.
“Oh, Daddy!” Abe protested, climbing out now, but Morris instructed, “Stay, you, with the baby.”
Abe flopped back down and hugged on his pillow.
On the first landing, with Herman padding behind, Morris fingered up a cigar butt he’d stuck into an ash tray and chomped down on it.
“Daddy, are we Rebels?” Herman asked as they came to the crate.
“Today? Yes, we are Rebels.”
Morris jockeyed the box out of the corner and wedged the crowbar into a crevice. Herman reached up and grabbed hold of the bar and lifted his feet off the ground. The boards groaned apart.
Morris lifted out the skirts one by one: pretty pale blues and checkered reds. “Besser,” he addressed the spirit of his supplier in New Orleans, “now, you are making good business.”
From in the back he pulled a skirt soiled on the side. Holding it close, he eyed the brown stain. “Besser,” he fumed, “you try to sell to me this drek?”
From deep inside the crate came scratching and scuffling. Feathers flashed brightly, then exploded into wings.
“Gall durn bird!” Herman cried. “Shoo.” A starling wove toward the eaves.
Morris found the bag of old shoes and brought one out, hurling it upwards. The starling dove away, arcing across overalls.
“Small blessings,” Morris muttered as bird droppings missed the table and splashed against the floor. The starling turned back over his head and flew up the steps. Herman raced behind.
Into Lillian’s room, back through Abe’s and Herman’s, the bird coursed. Herman grabbed up a broomstick and jumped onto the bed, dancing around Abe’s pillow.
Abe sat up blearily. “What are you doing?”
“Is this fun!”
“You’re the one didn’t get up.” Herman poked wildly at the air.
“Daddy wouldn’t let me!”
“In bed like a bum!” Morris yelled at him.
The bird swooped back into the dining room, veering by Morris’s head, who cursed Besser like he was in the next room.
“Y’all leave Abe alone,” Lillian said, coming from her room, jaw dropping at the spectacle of Daddy waving his arms in the air and turning in circles.
Morris ran toward the front of the apartment, throwing open the French doors. The starling looped back, veered toward Herman who shouted, “Go on, git!” before it banked and hurtled into the calm, bluing Alabama sky.
After drinking his black coffee and eating a bowl of mamaligi that Miriam had fixed—he still preferred to pasty Southern grits this hearty Romanian dish of cornmeal boiled down to yellow porridge—Morris hurried back down to the walk.
Waiting for the parade to assemble, two boys leaned against a hitching post in front of the Lyric Theater, practicing their drums. Their rolls and rimshots climbed the walls of the popular vaudeville venue, by the marquee reading Al Jolson May 5 and Alabama Minstrels Tonight, moving like a prowler up the French grille balconies.
Most, this early, just wanted to converse about that bloody conflict he’d heard called “the Civil War” up North but here was “the War Between the States,” or “the Cause.” When this subject came up, anywhere in America, he kept his mouth shut. Fifty years had passed since the Yankees had come steaming into Mobile Bay and Admiral Farragut had cried, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” but it was as if the jackal had appeared yesterday. Morris had learned, soon after stepping off the train here in 1907, that mention of “Grant” or “Sherman” started a fight. Even in school in Romania, he had heard of the great president named Lincoln, but to repeat his name here, except among the Negroes, was to risk a bloody nose.
Besides, with every holiday there were sales to be made. Fourth of July—bathing attire. Christmas—children’s dresses. Last month had been the celebration called Mardi Gras. He had no evening dress to sell—not like Hammel’s, run by German Jews, where blue-blooded city dwellers, whatever their origins, spent a pretty penny to outfit themselves elegantly for the occasion.
He watched Donnie McCall saunter in now, Panama hat pushed back, red-faced and jowly. Beneath McCall’s eyes were always deep circles, like his own Papa’s. McCall, an Irishman he called himself, like Papa also had black-black eyes. A better customer there never was.
McCall nodded to his scuffed-up shoes. “Need a new pair, Mr. Morris. Something respectable for today’s doings, not too fancy. The colored look up to a man with smart shoes.”
Morris fetched two-tone lace-ups while McCall settled into a chair. Kneeling at his feet, Morris asked about the funeral insurance business as he shoehorned on the first pair.
“One thing folks got to do is die. And when they do, God rest their souls”—McCall stood, peering down—”they want to make sure their funeral’s a send-off the likes of which”—he wriggled his toes—”has never been witnessed before. Too small.” He sat.
“These better will fit.”
McCall stood again, rocked back and forth. “Got my name on ’em, don’t you think?”
“Right here.” Morris patted the tips. “I can interest you in a new Panama hat?”
“Could be tomorrow.”
“I will put in the back one with your name just in case.”
McCall paid for the shoes and said good-day. A tall man shambled in and plopped down in a chair.
“Got these suckers from you a while ago,” the man said, tugging off his muddy boots. “Name’s Jackson.”
“A good price I remember, Mr. Jackson.”
The clammy odor of Jackson’s feet rose up. “Don’t want ’em.”
“Is not possible.”
“You make it possible.”
“How can I take back old shoes?”
“I paid $2.95 for these durn boots! They hurt my feet!”
Morris broke into a sweat. “Come, the wife she does not like when I do this, but”–he coaxed the man to the display case–“if she does not see.” He handed him a bottle of 25-cent ointment.
The man turned it back and forth. “What’s it say?”
“Dr. Zigorsky’s Foot Elixir. A medicine, but for you a blessing. Worth many dollars.”
“Cost me nothin’?”
Morris shook his head. “Hurry, before the wife, she sees.”
“Got you a deal,” said the man, who dragged his boots back on and hobbled out the store.
By eight o’clock the walks of Dauphin Street began to fill with people and Morris positioned Herman on a stool near the door to keep an eye out for passersby with sticky fingers. Some paused before the outdoor racks of M. Kleinman & Sons looking over the newest hats and boulevard ties.
A willowy, red-haired young woman turned into the store with easy gait, heading to the fancy ladies’ section in the rear. Lillian came from the back office to greet her. As they went down the rows, the woman selected a blue cotton dress and Lillian directed her to the dressing curtain which she drew around her. A moment later she rolled open the curtain and walked to the floor-length mirror.
“What do you think?” she asked Lillian.
“You look,” Lillian surmised, “like a nice spring day.”
“What an enterprising girl!” The young woman turned to Morris. “Now for a gentleman’s opinion?”
He saw again the rich hair and pale eyes of the Romanian girl, Theodora Eminescu, turning to him in the window long ago. Her shoulders rose from her gown, the lantern glow bathing her skin.
“We call this, a shayna klayde. A pretty dress.”
“But how do I look in it?”
“In this shayna klayde you are”–he hesitated, not wanting to sound fresh–“a shayna madele.” He felt himself blush.
“By the look on your face, it must be good. Reckon I’ll take it.”
Morris quickly turned his attention to the register.
Before long the sidewalk was lined with Mobilians craning their necks for sight of the marchers, the Kleinman children among them. There were squeals and shouts as, far off, the full complement of drums sounded, buzzing along M. Kleinman & Sons’ street-front panes. The tattoo of cornets charged the air. The first marchers arrived.
No matter their look–one man was rigid, another bent–or their size–one was tall like a youth, another once tall but shrunk in old age–the men carried themselves with the same tired, but defiant bearing. At ages sixty-five and seventy, seventy-five and eighty, they puffed their chests out against their gray jackets, feeble but cocksure.
“The alter kockers,” Sam Lutchnik, a Polish Jew down the street, had said of the marchers, “the old men, still fighting their war.”
It was a war that lived still from regiment to regiment, in the trudging boots, the waistcoats cinched tight around the sloping bellies of men who years before, lean and quick, thundered across the fields of Shiloh and Manassas, that town, Morris had heard, named for a Jew.
Two men passed, aided by young cadets–the first was missing his left leg, his stump wagging as he hopped on crutches, the second on crutches with no right foot. Behind them walked a veteran with a cane, tap-tapping on the street. With his free hand he waved at the crowd, his ruined eyes cocked toward the sky.
Some veteran groups had banners: Raphael Semmes Division, honoring one man, Morris had been told, who stood at the helm of a big warship called Alabama and was buried at the old Catholic cemetery a few miles away, and the George E. Dixon Division, memorializing a poor boy from Mobile who had gone under the water in Charleston Harbor in a hand-cranked submarine called the Hunley to blast a hole in a Union ship, and was entombed in those waters.
The music rose, a tune called “Bonnie Blue Flag.” It changed to a melody Morris knew well.
It was not a song that belonged to him like the Yiddish melodies he loved to hum from deep in his boyhood, or the religious songs like the soaring “Aveinu Malkeinu” of Rosh Hashanah, or the stirring “Kol Nidre” chanted at Yom Kippur. But these piccolos playing out the spirited melody gave him goosebumps. “Dixie,” it was called. The song piped its sad merriment through the streets, where the onlookers clapped and stomped.
Behind the last division of men followed a crowd of marching ladies: A-frame dresses sweeping the street, silver hair up in buns or down in thin gray tresses reminiscent of the days they had waited for their young Johnny Rebs to return from the battlefields. Many had waited, and waited, their faces caught still in that moment fifty years ago when an emissary stepped onto the porch and announced, with deep consolation, that Jack Mayfield or Curtis Kellogg or Ira Glasser would never be returning, sweet Jesus be with you in this time of great need.
Among these women Morris saw Ira’s widow, Dolores, who’d later married Joseph Levy, a German Jew who himself had died the year before. Today, though, Joseph was forgotten: Dolores walked mourning her bright, Confederate youth.
Young women now passed who smiled and waved in the modern way. These were the Daughters of the Confederacy: Spring Hill Chapter, Oakleigh Chapter, Saraland Chapter, Bay Minette Chapter. Girls no older than Ira must have been when the word came back that the young man’s life had bled out of him at Chickamauga.
Behind a drum and fife corps filed the cadets of Mobile Military Academy, grave-faced adolescents restless for President Wilson to make a declaration of War, allowing them to jump into trenches alongside the Frenchmen and the Brits, having at the dirty Huns. Some had already found action with General Pershing on the Mexican border, chasing the wily Pancho Villa back to his desert lair; the heroic tales they brought back had ignited their friends. The way they stamped their feet reminded Morris of Cossacks, rifles locked on their shoulders. Abe put two fingers to his lips and shrieked a whistle.
A towering lout bumped into Morris and veered into the store.
“I can help you, sir?” Morris asked, following behind.
The man wove toward the rack of hats, reached for a Stetson and knocked several hats to the floor. He stepped back, tottering.
The smell of corn whiskey soured the air.
Miriam looked in from the street. “Shikker,” Morris said to her.
“What did you say about me?” The man wove toward the counter, steadying himself on the cash register.
“I said you are drunk.”
“Don’t talk Yid talk.”
“Out of the store, mister.”
“I can do what I Goddamn please!”
“Do not curse the Lord God in here.”
“You’re telling me about…?” The man gazed up blearily at the ceiling, then back down to Morris. “What business you people got hoopin’ and hollerin’ today?”
“Leave this store.”
“This ain’t your war.”
Miriam had disappeared from the door; a band played a weary dirge.
“Passed by a woman here,” said Morris, “Dolores Glasser, who lost a husband in this War. How old was he? Only a boy, fighting in Chickamauga, I have seen the place, such a sadness. Passed Molly Friedman, her brother today walks with two crutches and no legs, boom. Fighting for a Jew named Proskauer, I have seen his picture. A proud man from Mobile, too, with a fancy beard. He was not like you, not a horse’s behind, not a putz making trouble in an honest man’s store.”
The man fell back from the cash register and glared at Morris. “You’re a scrappy cuss, ain’t you?” He took a step closer.
Morris picked up the crowbar.
Miriam came hurrying in with Officer Flynn who gripped the troublemaker’s collar and shook him. “You giving Mr. Morris trouble? I got a hole at the jail for a stinkin’ mongrel to sleep in.”
The man looked helplessly at Morris. Abe and Herman had appeared.
Morris shook his head. “No, he will not bother us again.”
The man nodded dumbly as they went outside. When Flynn had gone his way, the man said, “You ain’t such a bad Joe,” and brought out a flask of whiskey.
Morris grasped it, took a swig, and, as the man stumbled away, spat it out behind him on the walk.
“Ach, my shoulder.” Morris spoke to himself, sitting in the rocking chair near the door as a lull came in the procession. The sky had clouded over and rain threatened the day. Wearily he rubbed at his shoulder. Since the November night he’d first slept on those feed sacks in the Eminescu barn, he’d felt the Romanian cold haunting his body, like a sliver of ice deep in his wing. He ceased rubbing, wishing he had swallowed that hooligan’s whiskey now, a nice elixir to ease his shoulder’s ache.
Sheeted men with hoods over their faces trod silently by, on the shoulders of one a large, rugged cross. The Klan members were met with polite, steady applause. Morris had learned it was prudent, when Klansmen passed, to look straight ahead, nodding, while revealing no emotion at all. What bone to pick anyway, could they have with him? Wilder enthusiasm greeted the wagonloads of farmers who waved Confederate battle flags and hollered and whistled back at the crowd.
At the same time as the children went cavorting down the street going bang bang at enemy soldiers there was the crack of real rifles from the direction of Magnolia Cemetery. The sharp report came again in salute to the Confederate dead, scattering swallows from the telegraph wires down Dauphin, igniting a spark in the feet of the children.
Morris rocked back, looking up at the pressed-tin ceiling of his store, seeing the brocade of ice on the window of his room as a boy with his brothers and sister close by, hearing the blast of rifles again in the frozen night. Under the blanket next to him stirred Chaim, who burrowed down deeper against the shattering noise. There was another volley of shots and, from the adjacent bed, Ben leapt up and came to join him at the window. Frantically they rubbed their palms across the thick, muted glass, trying to see. Golda began to cry in the next room.
Everywhere snow swirled through darkness, hiding the rattle of steel and the pounding of hooves, hiding the screams until it drew back like a veil revealing a man sunk down into the drifts and another alongside, tugging him up, and a horse, like a black ghost flying. Voices, shouts, villagers emerging from doorways running toward the figures in the snow. Another horse crowded the darkness, then another came thundering, and the door of Morris’s own house opened as Papa, nightshirt flying, headed toward the courtyard, and Mama was at the door of their room holding Golda, putting her finger to her lips, exhorting, “Sha shtil, kinder, be quiet, children, do as Papa has asked and pray to the Almighty.”
The night stilled a moment, then held sobbing and angry, rising voices. Morris and his brothers rubbed busily at the window, wiping away their own curtains of breath, watching the men disperse, hearing the sobbing fall away and the voices receding into houses across the shtetl square.
Papa’s face was long and dark when he came back in, and the next day when he went off to work at his distillery, and when he returned; and the next day and next, when sitting by the fire, prayer book open on his lap, he gazed off at the dancing flames. He said nothing until that night he came home, eyes sunk into deep moons, and told them the soldiers had visited him with swords and guns, a law, they said, barring Jews from this business, as others had been barred from being doctors and men of the courts. Who knew, they said, what mischief Jews might perform on grains and yeast and water; on the magic liquor they sold to the good Christians of Piatra Neamt? How much money the Jews had accumulated, they complained, at the expense of the good people of the village! As Papa spoke, his face darkened still, as though wanting to let loose tears like those that had come when they marched to the cemetery with his own father and tossed the dirt onto the casket and sat solemnly for days until the black veils were lifted from the chairs.
But he held back the tears, and sat one week, and then another, with prayer book open while gazing only at the fire. He called Morris to him and explained there was little money left for the family, and word had come throughout the region of Moldavia, from Dorohoi to Iasi, that others had businesses that were being closed down. He told Morris that he must leave school and go to work at a farmhouse on the edge of the Romanian plain; that he had contacted a grain farmer he knew through the distillery, Stefan Eminescu, a good Christian man with a son and two daughters, who could use a boy with good hands and strong back.
Mama’s hand rested on Morris’s shoulder. “Azril,” she said, “don’t be so hard on him, tell him more gently,” and he nodded and said her name, “Shayna Blema,” pretty rose. “Pretty rose,” Morris repeated, reaching up to touch her slender, soft hand. She started to walk away, but he held her hand firmly now; “gai nisht, Mama,” he whispered, don’t leave, feeling the floor drop away.
“Morris?” Miriam’s voice was exhorting him. Her hand jiggled his shoulder. “Chicken dreaming corn?”
“He shook his head. “Not so good.”
“The parade is over, and more customers will be coming soon.” She moved away toward the cash register to go over the morning’s receipts.
He stood from the rocking chair, the floor still dropping away, and stepped outdoors to steady himself, breathing in Mobile streets.
©2003 by Roy Hoffman. Chicken Dreaming Corn (ISBN 0-8203-2668-2) was published by University of Georgia Press. Reprinted with permission.